Op-ed | Is space warfare’s final frontier?

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This commentary originally appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine. 

It’s one thing to prepare for the eventuality of warfare in space. It’s another to assert that space warfare is inevitable. Many have predicted this since the launch of Sputnik, and all have been proven wrong—so far. The task before us isn’t just to acquire capabilities to fight, if necessary, but also to prevent warfare from occurring. Success involves deterrence as well as reassurance in the form of diplomatic engagement.

There are two generic kinds of failure in the arms control and threat reduction business: failure despite trying, and failure by not trying. Neither one is comforting, but the latter is particularly galling. The dangerous military competition in space now unfolding reflects both kinds of failure. None of us really know how fast and how far this competition is unfolding because major powers advertise very little. The only point of clarity at present is that there are few diplomatic instruments and no diplomacy among major powers to serve as even a slight counterweight to the military competition now underway.

It’s extremely hard to negotiate limits on dangerous military technologies. When success occurs, it’s due to their exorbitant costs and the relative ease of their nullification. When adversaries perceive common interests to constrain dangerous military technologies, they can focus on preventing tests that are verifiable by national technical means (NTM). Controls on the production of weapon systems incorporating dangerous military technologies are also possible, as was demonstrated in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, where production monitoring was accomplished by a combination of on-site inspections and sensors located at and above production facilities. Controls on deployments of military systems incorporating dangerous technologies can also be monitored by cooperative measures and NTM. This is how Washington and Moscow managed to slow down and then downsize their strategic nuclear competition.

All of this was very hard to do. It’s harder to control dangerous military technologies applicable to space warfare, where these methods have yet to be applied. A long-range missile that carries a nuclear warhead doesn’t have military applications beyond the obvious. Because nuclear warfare stands apart from other types of warfare, states willing to place constraints on such capabilities, whether for reasons of cost, signaling, or threat reduction, can find the means to do so. In contrast, a laser beam could be used as a space weapon, or it could be used for monitoring or satellite station keeping. To prohibit a technology on the basis of one application would be to prohibit it for other essential uses. The same problem applies to the delivery vehicles that could be used for space warfare. An airplane that could be used to launch an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon could be used to ferry cargo or strike the planners of the next 9/11 attacks.

Beijing and Moscow champion an ambitious space treaty as they ramp up ASAT capabilities, knowing full well that they can count on Washington to pour cold water on an unverifiable treaty riddled with loopholes. The hard reality is that formalized arms control and threat reduction treaties relating to multi-purpose technologies are beyond the reach of negotiators – and not acceptable to two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

It remains possible to reach tacit or executive agreements on verifiable testing constraints, but residual space warfare capabilities would remain in place. These residual capabilities — as well as new excursions—could serve as the basis for deterrence of space warfare, but deterrence without reassurance is extremely dangerous.

The most practical and common sense means of reassurance are behavioral norms embedded in a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. This diplomatic initiative would seek consensus on defining dangerous military practices in space. It wouldn’t seek the impossible — constraining military technologies — but would instead focus on cooperative activities to be promoted and dangerous activities to avoid. A code of conduct is possible because all major powers are investing heavily in space — on top of considerable sunk costs. No amount of war-fighting capabilities in space can safeguard these investments.

Military competitions in space are cyclical. They subside and regenerate when competition between major powers on land or at sea intensifies. By my count, this is the third round of intensified competition — the others sparked by Sputnik and the Strategic Defense Initiative. This time, there are three, not two, serious competitors. This time, the military competition has extended to geostationary orbit, and this time, space isn’t the private domain of national governments and military establishments. The private sector and consortia are major players. Profit taking can add friction or have palliative effects. If we’re smart in space, as on Earth, the pursuit of profit and existing co-dependencies can have a restraining effect on military adventurism.

Competitions in space, unlike strategic competitions involving missiles, bombers, subs and missile defense deployments, are mostly out of sight. Outsiders are left with inferences, not hard data. We know, at least roughly, the status of nuclear forces. We don’t know the balance of forces in space warfare.

Cities are hostages in nuclear deterrence. In space, satellites are hostages. They are as vulnerable as cities. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to disable or destroy them. Nuclear detonations and kinetic kill mechanisms in space are indiscriminate weapons; their use will hurt one’s own assets in space. The real competition in offensive counter-space capabilities lies elsewhere.

Deterrence, whether in the nuclear domain or in space requires redundancy — both to threaten and to survive. The accumulation of counter-space capabilities is a dangerous business. Beyond a certain point, no amount of increased firepower can provide advantages or can stabilize a strategic competition. Instead, offsetting compulsions to compete decrease everyone’s sense of security.

The deterrence piece needs an accompanying reassurance piece. One place to start, either by tacit or executive agreements with Russia and China, is to stop carrying out hit-to-kill ASAT tests. A kinetic energy ASAT test ban is verifiable and possible because the United States, China, and Russia have already demonstrated this capability, and everyone now recognizes the blowback consequences of explosive debris generation. Agreeing not to carry out such tests would have some symbolic value, as it would demonstrate top-down awareness of the dangers of the current competition. But it would not be reassuring, as it would not constrain competition elsewhere, including ASAT tests designed to miss.

For greater reassurance, a broader set of norms embedded in a space code of conduct is needed. Success will come only when the three major space powers are on board. If the Trump administration could somehow endorse this initiative and propose trilateral discussions on it, Moscow and Beijing might react more positively than during the Obama administration. But this is obviously a long shot.

In the meantime, the messages conveyed by U.S. officials and military leaders about this competition are crucial. The best messenger at this point is Gen. John Hyten of the Strategic Command, who has repeatedly clarified the U.S. preference to avoid fighting a war in space, while noting that the Pentagon will be quite ready if others want to go there. The worst messenger is newly confirmed Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, who  has asserted that, “We must develop space airmen who have the tools, training, and resources to fight when — not if — war extends into space.”

Asserting that warfare in space is inevitable makes about as much sense as asserting that nuclear warfare is inevitable: If this is the case, then constraints of any kind, including norms of responsible behavior, are worse than useless. The record of the last seven decades suggests that nuclear warfare is not inevitable, and that diplomacy has been essential to avoid this outcome. The record of the last six decades suggests that warfare in space is not inevitable, either. What’s painfully missing now is the diplomatic piece to help avoid worst cases.

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center, a peace and diplomacy think tank.